Ethnic relations

Although the relative status of the Ukrainian and Russian languages has been a sensitive issue, relations between Ukrainians and Russians as ethnic communities in Ukraine have not been tense in most places. One exception is Crimea (see below). Another is Lviv in western Ukraine, where the local Russian community is treated with greater intolerance than in central and eastern Ukraine.

The initially overwhelming public support for independence obscured a deep division in attitudes. Only in western Ukraine was independence valued for its own sake, as an ideal for which it was worth making sacrifices.

In Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and Crimea, most of those who voted for independence did so under the illusion that it would quickly bring prosperity. When it turned out that independence was instead followed by economic decline, they became increasingly hostile to the Ukrainian nationalists and the government in Kyiv. Their hostility was exacerbated by exaggerated fears that they would be forced to stop speaking Russian and use only Ukrainian.

Caution on "Ukrainianization"

The lack of tension is due in large measure to the cautious approach of government regarding the “Ukrainianization” of the Russian-speaking regions. Despite the influence of Ukrainian nationalism in the early years of independence, an inclusive concept of the state has prevailed, based on common citizenship rather than ethnicity.

Ethnic polarization between Russians and Ukrainians is also restrained by the presence of a large intermediate group of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and others of mixed Russian-Ukrainian identity. Even geography has helped in avoiding conflict. Between nationalist western Ukraine and anti-nationalist eastern Ukraine stretches the broad expanse of central Ukraine.

Language, however, has continued to be a sensitive issue.  In 2006, several pro-Russian legislators declared Russian a “regional” language. Then President Yushchenko called the change in language status unconstitutional. In 2012 government policy shifted.  President Yanukovych signed a law allowing local and regional governments to give official status to Russian and other languages spoken by at least 10 percent of residents.

OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebaek expresed concern that the new language law could divide the country. he noted that Russian is spoken primarily in the country's east and south, while Ukrainian is spoken in the west and center. Ukrainian speakers fear that Russian could crowd out Ukrainian, as it did in Soviet times. The High Commissioner also expressed concern at the manner in which the law was adopted. He particularly referred to the parliamentary majority’s refusal to consider any of the more than 2,000 amendments put forward.

In the immediate aftermath of Yanukovych's February 2014 downfall, parliament canceled the 2012 law on the "Principles of State Language Policy."  The parliamentary speaker, however, reportedly vetoed the draft law.  OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Thors urged that the new Ukrainian authorities take measures to ensure that the concerns of all ethnic and linguistic groups are taken into consideration.

Little conflict between ethnic groups

There has also been little conflict between the two main ethnic groups and the various small ethnic minorities—again with the exception of Crimea. In 1992 the governments of Ukraine and Hungary negotiated an agreement to guarantee the rights of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia. The issue of whether the Rusyns in Transcarpathia should be recognized as an ethnic group distinct from Ukrainians is potentially a source of tension.

Religious conflict

There has been religious conflict between four Christian Churches, and most recently between some of the churches and the regime. These are:

  • The Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Filaret in Moscow.  (Filaret is an ally of Russian President Putin.)
  • The breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, loyal to independent Ukraine (The Church has been actively supporting the protests against Yanukovych's decision to back away from a closer relationship with the EU.)
  • The rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church, established by Ukrainian emigres in North America after World War Two.
  • The Uniate Church, a local variety of Catholicism that recognizes the authority of the Pope but retains some Orthodox rites.  This Church is dominant in the west of the country.  (Major Archbishop Shevchuk has urged Ukrainian authorities not to shed the blood of the anti-Yanukovych protesters, and a former Church leader spoke at one of the protest rallies.)

Parishioners of these different confessions have struggled with each other for possession of church buildings.